Summer brings a great number of joys, not the least of which is the freedom to cook and eat outdoors. For most people, this means firing up the barbecue and throwing on any brand of item, from juicy burgers to a colourful array of vegetables.
Unfortunately, the grill may infuse your foods with a few health hazards.
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“We know that charring meat is dangerous and can increase cancer risk,” says Jessica Begg, a registered dietitian and founder of Shift Nutrition in Calgary. “The thing with meat is that you’re doubling down on your risk because you’re taking red meat and layering on the char, both of which are carcinogenic.”
That’s because when the protein and fat content in meat are brought to a high temperature for long periods of time, they develop heterocyclic amines, chemicals that can cause DNA alterations that may lead to cancer.
This isn’t the case with vegetables, since they don’t have the same makeup, however, the concern is with vegetables that have been brushed with oil prior to landing on the hot grill.
“If you’re burning oil, whether that’s on a pan or a grill, the smoke will stick to the food and that’s a carcinogenic agent,” Begg says.
Researchers are also concerned with the AGEs in food — or advanced glycation end products. When foods are cooked at high heat levels, AGEs proliferate and they can lead to problems like inflammation, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that dry heat promotes AGE formation anywhere from 10- to 100-fold over uncooked foods.
The good news is this is more of a concern with animal-based products, which are high in fat and protein and therefore AGE-rich, while carbohydrates like vegetables already contain few AGEs.
But for those concerned about this, the study found that adding an acidic element, like lemon juice or vinegar, cooking with moist heat, and using shorter cooking times and temperatures, could significantly reduce AGE production.
Furthermore, another study published in the journal Food Chemistry found that grape seed and rosemary extract inhibit the formation of heterocyclic amines. All of which means a marinade that includes rosemary, lemon juice and vinegar, could protect you from any potential hazards in grilling vegetables and meats.
The best way to eat vegetables
Vegetables are inherently healthy, but some factors can come into play that compromise their nutrient density.
“They’re at their healthiest when they’re at peak freshness,” Begg says. “A lot of their nutrients can be unstable, so they’ll degrade over time, whether they’ve travelled a long time before landing in the supermarket, they’ve been in your fridge for a week, or they’ve been boiled or canned.”
It’s always best to eat them as quickly as possible. And don’t get taken in by raw food enthusiasts, either.
“Some vegetables actually do better when they’re cooked because they’re easier to digest and we therefore digest their nutrients better.”
These include tomatoes, carrots, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, asparagus and peppers. But how you prepare them before consuming them shouldn’t preclude you from eating your veggies.